A red pill called ‘BJP’

How the Modi government is using a generic drugs scheme for party branding.

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A red pill called ‘BJP’
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BJP stands for Bharatiya Janata Party. BJP also means Bhartiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana. Conveniently so for the Narendra Modi government.

Bharatiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana is a scheme to provide affordable generic medicines to the public. It was launched by the Manmohan Singh government in 2008 as Jan Aushadhi Scheme and repackaged by the Modi government in 2015 as Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Yojana. In November 2016 it was rechristened Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana – to eke out the desired abbreviation “BJP”.

In case the motivation was not plainly apparent, the packaging of the drugs leaves little to imagination: the first letter of each word in the scheme’s name in Devanagari – ‘Bha’, ‘Ja’, ‘Pa’ – is printed in distinct saffron and the rest in shades of green and blue. Saffron, of course, is the BJP’s party colour.

The drugs are sold through a network of pharmacies called Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Kendra – Pradhan Mantri was chained to the name during the 2016 rebrand – where billboards featuring a beaming Modi greet nearly five lakh customers every day. There are some 8,700 of these drugstores in the country today, up from 80 when the BJP took power. They stock about 1,600 commonly used generics and 240 surgical items, and the inventory is ever expanding, according to the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Bureau of India, the central agency implementing the programme.

The “BJP” scheme is estimated to have saved patients over Rs 4,760 crore in the last financial year alone as the generic drugs are 50-90 percent cheaper than the branded versions, said the bureau’s CEO Ravi Dadhich. A 10-tablet strip of Amlodipine, used to treat blood pressure, for example, costs Rs 5.50 under the scheme as against Rs 28 in the market.

The government’s plan is to have 10,000 Jan Aushadhi Kendras by next year, Dadhich told Newslaundry, and one drugstore per lakh people in the long run.

Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Kendra in Delhi.

Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Kendra in Delhi.

As for the scheme’s “BJP” branding, Dadhich declined to comment. However a top official in the ministry of chemicals and fertilizers, which led the rebranding exercise, said the decision was made by top “political representatives”. Mansukh Mandaviya, minister for chemicals and fertilizers, did not return a request for comment.

Such branding isn’t prohibited, though, since it doesn’t technically fall within the ambit of political advertising, which is regulated by the Committee on Content Regulation in Government Advertising.

The committee, formed in 2016 at the Supreme Court’s direction, is mandated to ensure that ads paid for by taxpayer money are related solely to government responsibilities, contain objective content, don’t promote political interest, and comply with legal and financial requirements.

The panel is required to be composed of three members of “unimpeachable neutrality and impartiality” but that hasn’t prevented allegations of bias, especially from the Aam Aadmi Party which has accused it of turning a blind eye to BJP’s ads. However, OP Rawat, a former chief election commissioner who served as the committee’s chairman until December 2021, denied the allegations, pointing out that they had served notices for violations of the apex court’s guidelines to “many BJP governments” as well.

The Modi government has a track record of using public schemes to market its leaders and the party. It has, for one, renamed many old schemes after Sangh Parivar ideologues like Deendayal Upadhayay or added the “Pradhan Mantri” in their names.

It isn’t alone in doing so, however. When Mayawati was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, she courted controversy for installing statues of herself and her Bahujan Samaj Party’s elephant symbol. Her successor, Akhliesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, launched schemes with “Samajwadi” in the name and had ration cards carry his likeliness. The incumbent chief minister, Adityanath of the BJP, has painted public buses, toilets, and even schoolbags saffron.

In Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee government has painted railings and flyovers in her Trinamool Congress party colours of blue and white, and introduced a blue-and-white uniform in state schools.

In Delhi, the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2016 accused the Arvind Kejriwal government of using public money on TV ads that showed a person waving a broom, the election symbol of AAP, and referred to “AAP ki sarkar,” ostensibly publicising the party rather than the government. But the Kejriwal government continues to use the “AAP ki sarkar” slogan.

Pictures by Shivnarayan Rajpurohit.

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